Sunday, March 30, 2008

Space freighter's approach and go

Jules Verne pictured from the ISS (Esa ATV Blog)
Jules Verne pictured as a small dot from the ISS

Europe's "Jules Verne" freighter has demonstrated the ability to navigate itself to a point just 3,500m from the International Space Station.

The cargo ship, which carries some five tonnes of supplies for the platform, was then instructed by ground control to "escape" to a safe distance.

It was the first of two demo days the vehicle must complete before being allowed to dock with the ISS.

Practice manoeuvres on Monday will take Jules Verne to 12m from the station.

Again, the session will end with the 19-tonne freighter being instructed to remove itself to a safe distance, about 100m from the platform.

If ISS mission managers are satisfied with what they have seen, they will permit an automated attachment to occur on Thursday.

Jules Verne is the biggest, most sophisticated spacecraft yet flown by the European Space Agency (Esa).

Technology check-out

It has been designed to operate independent of human control. The vehicle can fly itself to the platform and execute an automatic docking.

Ground staff in Toulouse, France, give the ship permission to move through a series of hold points; but they will only intervene in the vehicle's decision-making if something is seen to be going wrong.

Being a completely new vessel, however, Jules Verne (also known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle - ATV) must prove its systems.

Demonstration Day One allowed the vehicle to show off its navigation capabilities using an advanced form of GPS. Radar and communications technologies were also checked out. Controllers even got a glimpse of the dot-like ship through an ISS camera (pictures can be seen on Esa's ATV Blog).

Demonstration Day Two will give Jules Verne the opportunity to show off the optical sensors it will use for the close proximity manoeuvres that will take it right into the docking cone on the back of the station's Zvezda module.

Currently, Thursday's docking procedure is booked to begin at 1144 GMT, with the ATV starting from a hold point 250m from the ISS.

Contact is timed for 1441 GMT. The cargo ship's speed relative to the station at that moment will be about seven cm/second. Of course, the two objects - cargo ship and station - will in fact be moving across the surface of the Earth at about 27,000km/h.

Once a seal and electrical connections have been confirmed, and the astronauts have checked the air inside the ATV is safe to breathe - the supplies can be unloaded.

Crews will use Jules Verne like a store cupboard.

They will go into the pressurised vessel to obtain food, clothing and equipment when they need it. Fuel will be piped across to the main station complex; water will be carried out in bags; air will simply be vented from taps.

As the supplies are depleted, the space will be filled with rubbish. Jules Verne is expected to take this waste into a controlled burn-up over the Pacific Ocean when it leaves the station later this year.

The ATV Launched on 9 March. Esa is delighted with the way the mission has gone so far.

The agency's ATV project manager, John Ellwood, told the BBC on Friday: "We've had the usual small anomalies; we're learning how to fly the bird - but nothing that has been really difficult."

Original here

Dean Kamen's Robotic "Luke" Arm

No, the LHC won’t destroy the Earth

I linked to this subtly in my post about my trip to the UK next month to visit Europe’s new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but it deserves more attention.

Two men are suing to stop the LHC from being switched on, saying it may be dangerous and might even destroy the Earth:

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.


The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.

First off the bat, this sounds nuts, but really it’s not so nuts that we shouldn’t look into it. There are two causes for some concern: one is that LHC might create a black hole which would eat the Earth, and the other is that a very odd quantum entity called a strangelet might be created, with equally devastating results.

However, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. I want to make that clear up front.

The LHC will slam subatomic particles together at fantastic speeds. The collision in a sense shatters the particles and all sorts of weird beasties are created in the aftermath. This give physicists insight into the basic quantum nature of the Universe. The higher the energy of the collision, the more interesting stuff you get. LHC will be the most powerful collider ever built, and is expected to provide really new looks at the quantum world.

That’s what has the two litigators worried.

If two subatomic particles collide at high enough speed, it’s possible that they will collapse into a black hole. If that happens, it would fall through the Earth and, well, you can guess what bad things would happen then*.

However, studies done by CERN show that the energies generated will be too low to make black holes. Also, due to a weird effect called Hawking radiation, the tiny black holes would evaporate instantly. The two litigants, however, say that Hawking radiation is not an established fact, and therefore we should be more careful. While that’s technically true, they forgot something important: the same rules of quantum physics that make a black hole in a subatomic collision also indicate they would evaporate. So if you’re worried they won’t evaporate, then you shouldn’t be worried they’d be created in the first place.

Same goes for the creation of a quantum strangelet. This is a weird conglomeration of particles called quarks, and if a strangelet comes into contact with normal matter can convert it into more strangelets. The idea is that these can cause a chain reaction that turns all available matter into strangelets. That would be bad.

However, first, strangelets are completely theoretical, and again even if they are real it’s incredibly unlikely they would be created even by LHC. And even if they were created, the chances of them being a danger are very small. A study a few years ago by physicists at MIT, Yale, and Princeton shows this to be the case; as they point out, higher energy particles hit the Moon all the time. If strangelets could be created in this way, the Moon would have converted to a big ball o’ strangelets billions of years ago.

So I think that considering things like this happening is good — after all, we’re walking into new territory here — but in this particular case the litigants are wrong. A lawsuit seems like overkill. In fact, it’s so odd that my skeptical gland was tweaked, and I decided to look into the litigants’ backgrounds.

Walter Wagner apparently has a physics background, but was involved in a similar lawsuit over the Brookhaven collider a few years back, which turned out to be completely baseless.

As for the other, Luis Sancho, he’s, well, how do I phrase this delicately? He’s a bit outside the mainstream. Actually, way outside the mainstream. In fact, totally and way way far outside the mainstream. I don’t think you can even see the mainstream from where he is.

While dismissing the idea of any danger from LHC due to these factors would be an ad hominem and therefore unfair, I think it adds a dimension to this case that’s good to keep in mind.

Again, I’m not worried. I don’t see any basis for their fears, and certainly not for their lawsuit.

So I’m still greatly looking forward to visiting the LHC in April. It’ll be a fantastic glimpse into the next generation of physics, and will open up new vistas for us to explore.

If the court agrees to let it run, of course.

Original here

Where did viruses come from?

hiv virus


Ed Rybicki, a virologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, answers:

Tracing the origins of viruses is difficult because they don't leave fossils and because of the tricks they use to make copies of themselves within the cells they've invaded. Some viruses even have the ability to stitch their own genes into those of the cells they infect, which means studying their ancestry requires untangling it from the history of their hosts and other organisms. What makes the process even more complicated is that viruses don't just infect humans; they can infect basically any organism—from bacteria to horses; seaweed to people.

Still, scientists have been able to piece together some viral histories, based on the fact that the genes of many viruses—such as those that cause herpes and mono—seem to share some properties with cells' own genes. This could suggest that they started as big bits of cellular DNA and then became independent—or that these viruses came along very early in evolution, and some of their DNA stuck around in cells' genomes. The fact that some viruses that infect humans share structural features with viruses that infect bacteria could mean that all of these viruses have a common origin, dating back several billion years. This highlights another problem with tracing virus origins: most modern viruses seem to be a patchwork of bits that come from different sources—a sort of "mix and match" approach to building an organism.

The fact that viruses like the deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses, as well as the distantly related viruses that cause measles and rabies, are only found in a limited number of species suggests that those viruses are relatively new—after all, those organisms came along somewhat recently in evolutionary time. Many of these "new" viruses likely originated in insects many million years ago and at some point in evolution developed the ability to infect other species—probably as insects interacted with or fed from them.

HIV, which is thought to have first emerged in humans in the 1930s, is another kind of virus, known as a retrovirus. These simple viruses are akin to elements found in normal cells that have the ability to copy and insert themselves throughout the genome. There are a number of viruses that have a similar way of copying themselves—a process that reverses the normal flow of information in cells, which is where the term "retro" comes from—and their central machinery for replication may be a bridge from the original life-forms on this planet to what we know as life today. In fact, we carry among our genes many "fossilized" retroviruses—left over from the infection of distant ancestors—which can help us trace our evolution as a species.

Then there are the viruses whose genomes are so large that scientists can't quite figure out what part of the cell they would have come from. Take, for instance, the largest-ever virus so far discovered, mimivirus: its genome is some 50 times larger than that of HIV and is larger than that of some bacteria. Some of the largest known viruses infect simple organisms such as amoebas and simple marine algae. This indicates that they may have an ancient origin, possibly as parasitic life-forms that then adapted to the "virus lifestyle." In fact, viruses may be responsible for significant episodes of evolutionary change, especially in more complex types of organisms.

At the end of the day, however, despite all of their common features and unique abilities to copy and spread their genomes, the origins of most viruses may remain forever obscure.

Original here

Firing photons makes advance in space communication

For the first time, physicists have been able to identify individual returning photons after firing and reflecting them off of a space satellite in orbit almost 1,500 kilometres above the earth. The experiment has proven the possibility of constructing a quantum channel between Space and Earth.

Research published on Friday, 28 March, in the New Journal of Physics, discusses the feasibility of building a completely secure channel for global communication, via satellites in space, all thanks to advances in quantum mechanics.

The research team, led by Paolo Villoresi and Cesare Barbieri from Padova University, Italy, has taken intricate steps to fire photons directly at the Japanese Ajisai Satellite. The researchers have been able to prove that the photons received back at the Matera ground-based station, in southern Italy, are the same as those originally emitted.

This news will be welcomed by communication companies, banks, and MI5-types worldwide as it paves the way for quantum-encrypted communication - the only form of communication that could ensure beyond any doubt that there are no eavesdroppers.

Until now, quantum-encrypted communication has only been proven possible at distances up to about 150 kilometres, either down optical fibres or via telescopes. When sent down optical fibres, photons are dissipated due to scattering and adsorption and, when using telescopes, photons are subject to interfering atmospheric conditions.

Anton Zeilinger, 2008 winner of the Institute of Physics’ premier award, the Newton Medal, was involved in the research. The team now believes that Space-to-Earth quantum communication is possible with available technology.

The scientists write, “We have achieved significant experimental results towards the realization of a quantum communication channel, as well as how to actually adapt an existing laser ranging facility for quantum communication.”

The team will now be furthering the research by making it possible to emit and receive quantum keys, uncrackable strings of 1s and 0s that enable quantum communication from an active sender in space. Very recently, the Italian Space Agency has funded the initial phase of this project.

Original here

13.73 Billion Years - The Most Precise Measurement of the Age of the Universe Yet

The WMAP observatory (credit: NASA)
NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has taken the best measurement of the age of the Universe to date. According to highly precise observations of microwave radiation observed all over the cosmos, WMAP scientists now have the best estimate yet on the age of the Universe: 13.73 billion years, plus or minus 120 million years (that's an error margin of only 0.87%… not bad really…).

The WMAP mission was sent to the Sun-Earth second Lagrangian point (L2), located approximately 1.5 million km from the surface of the Earth on the night-side (i.e. WMAP is constantly in the shadow of the Earth) in 2001. The reason for this location is the nature of the gravitational stability in the region and the lack of electromagnetic interference from the Sun. Constantly looking out into space, WMAP scans the cosmos with its ultra sensitive microwave receiver, mapping any small variations in the background "temperature" (anisotropy) of the universe. It can detect microwave radiation in the wavelength range of 3.3-13.6 mm (with a corresponding frequency of 90-22 GHz). Warm and cool regions of space are therefore mapped, including the radiation polarity.

This microwave background radiation originates from a very early universe, just 400,000 years after the Big Bang, when the ambient temperature of the universe was about 3,000 K. At this temperature, neutral hydrogen atoms were possible, scattering photons. It is these photons WMAP observes today, only much cooler at 2.7 Kelvin (that's only 2.7 degrees higher than absolute zero, -273.15°C). WMAP constantly observes this cosmic radiation, measuring tiny alterations in temperature and polarity. These measurements refine our understanding about the structure of our universe around the time of the Big Bang and also help us understand the nature of the period of "inflation", in the very beginning of the expansion of the Universe.

It is a matter of exposure for the WMAP mission, the longer it observes the better refined the measurements. After seven years of results-taking, the WMAP mission has tightened the estimate on the age of the Universe down to an error margin of only 120 million years, that's 0.87% of the 13.73 billion years since the Big Bang.

"Everything is tightening up and giving us better and better precision all the time […] It's actually significantly better than previous results. There is all kinds of richness in the data." - Charles L. Bennett, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.

This will be exciting news to cosmologists as theories on the very beginning of the Universe are developed even further.

Original here

Why matter matters in the universe

A new physics discovery explores why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.

The latest research findings, which involved significant contributions from physicists at the University of Melbourne, have been recently published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The paper reveals that investigation into the process of B-meson decays has given insight into why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.

“B-mesons are a new frontier of investigation for us and have proved very exciting in the formation of new thought in the field of particle physics.” said Associate Professor Martin Sevior of the University’s School of Physics who led the research.

Sevior says that B-mesons contain heavy quarks that can only be created in very high energy particle accelerators. Their decays provide a powerful means of probing the exotic conditions that occurred in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang created the Universe.

“Our universe is made up almost completely of matter. While we’re entirely used to this idea, this does not agree with our ideas of how mass and energy interact. According to these theories there should not be enough mass to enable the formation of stars and hence life.”

“In our standard model of particle physics, matter and antimatter are almost identical. Accordingly as they mix in the early universe they annihilate one another leaving very little to form stars and galaxies. The model does not come close to explaining the difference between matter and antimatter we see in the nature. The imbalance is a trillion times bigger than the model predicts.”

Sevior says that this inconsistency between the model and the universe implies there is a new principle of physics that we haven’t yet discovered.

“Together with our colleagues in the Belle experiment, based at KEK in Japan, we have produced vast numbers of B mesons with the world’s most intense particle collider.”

“We then looked at how the B-mesons decay as opposed to how the anti-B-mesons decay. What we find is that there are small differences in these processes. While most of our measurements confirm predictions of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, this new result appears to be in disagreement.”

“It is a very exciting discovery because our paper provides a hint as to what the new principle of physics is that led to our Universe being able to support life.”

Original here

Europe-wide radio net in aliens search

Scientists are finalising plans to link radio wave detectors in five countries and create a device sensitive enough to pick up signals from worlds the other side of the galaxy.

By connecting banks of detectors in fields across Britain, France, Holland, Sweden and Germany, astronomers aim to create a radio telescope that will have the accuracy of a machine the size of Europe. They believe it could solve some of the universe's most important secrets - including the discovery of radio broadcasts from intelligent extraterrestrials.

'This system works by collecting radio waves over a range of frequencies,' said cosmologist Robert Nichol of Portsmouth University. 'These can then be analysed using arrays of computers which can identify patterns from the data streaming from our detectors.

'Some of these signals will reveal information about the early universe, for example. However, broadcasts by alien intelligences would also be revealed by our computers because we will, primarily, be collecting radio signals. Signals that have regular patterns will give themselves away as the possible handiwork of extraterrestrials. Such work is a bonus, however. The main work of the system is basic research,' added Nichol.

The project - known as Lofar (low frequency array) - was launched in Holland several years ago, but has attracted the attention of other European astronomers. All have agreed to build their own banks of detectors, which can then be linked to those in Holland. Britain is committed to building one set, while requests for money for another three have been put to research councils.

Several sites for Britain's first array are being considered, although most scientists expect it to be built at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, where the giant radio dish is threatened with closure because of funding cuts. By building the Lofar antenna, which represents the future of radio astronomy, ground-breaking research can continue at the site, say scientists.

Lofar arrays exploit the fact that metals pick up radio waves and convert them into weak electric signals. In the past, dishes were pointed at heavenly objects so that their radio waves could be focused on a central receiver and generate a signal strong enough to be analysed.

Lofar uses a very different approach. 'Instead of moving a huge dish around the sky and pointing it at a star or galaxy or nebula, you simply cover a field with sheets of metal. The metal will pick up radio waves from all over the sky,' said Nichol, who this month was awarded a €50,000 Marie Curie prize by the European Union for his research. 'You then analyse these with banks of computers and, by carefully writing your software, you can pinpoint the object you want to study.

'The crucial point is that the more arrays you have, the more radio waves you collect, so Lofar becomes more sensitive. And if you have arrays far apart from each other, you can resolve distant objects with greater and greater precision.'

In other words, instead of using complex hardware to target objects in the sky, astronomers will exploit highly sophisticated 21st-century computer software to select and study their targets. Thus the steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank could be replaced by a series of metal plates the size of a football pitch.

'We will be looking for all sorts of different things with Lofar,' added Nichol. 'We will make surveys of the skies to look for unexpected events; for things that go bump in the night, as it were. We will also be able to study the universe's childhood years. We know a lot about the Big Bang, when the universe was created 13 billion years ago, and a lot about it now. But its early childhood years, around 500 million years after the Big Bang, remain a mystery.

'Why and how did stars form out of atoms that then permeated the cosmos? Lofar will help us work that out.'

Other scientists, including Lyndsay Fletcher at Glasgow University, intend to use Lofar to study objects much nearer to home, such as the Sun. 'Radio emissions pour from the Sun at all sorts of frequencies, each characteristic of a different physical process that is going on inside it,' said Fletcher. 'Lofar will give us a completely new method for understanding what goes on inside our own Sun.'

Original here

Evolution Of New Species Slows Down As Number Of Competitors Increases

Newly fledged Great Tit family being fed by mother. (Credit: iStockphoto/Charlie Bishop)

The rate at which new species are formed in a group of closely related animals decreases as the total number of different species in that group goes up, according to new research.

The research team believes these findings suggest that new species appear less and less as the number of species in a region approaches the maximum number that it can support.

In order for new species to thrive, they need to evolve to occupy their own niche in the ecosystem, relying on certain foods and habitats for survival that are sufficiently different from those of other closely related species.

Competition between closely related species for food and habitat becomes more intense the more species there are, and researchers believe this could be the reason for the drop-off in the appearance of new species over time.

Dr. Albert Phillimore, from Imperial College London's NERC Centre for Population Biology, lead author on the paper, explains: "The number of niches in any given region is finite, and our research supports the idea that the rate of speciation slows down as the number of niches begins to run out.

"In essence, it seems like increased competition between species could place limits on the number of species that evolve."

The new study used detailed analysis of the family trees, or phylogenies, of 45 different bird families. By examining the rate at which new species have arisen in each of these trees over a period of millions of years, scientists saw that the rate of appearance of new species seemed to be much higher in the early stages of the family tree, compared to more recent lower rates.

For example, when the researchers examined the phylogeny of tit birds they found that some 10 million years ago, species formed rapidly but this rate has slowed over time to perhaps a quarter of the initial rate.

Original here

Autistic poet gives rare glimpse into mystery illness

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.


Tito Mukhopadhyay uses poetry to talk with his mother, Soma. The autistic teenager is a published author.

(CNN) -- Tito Mukhopadhyay shuffles to the front door of his home in Austin, Texas. He's coming home from school, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

His mother, 45-year-old Soma Mukhopadhyay, is considered a pioneer in a breakthrough treatment for some autistic children who face the stigma of being considered "mentally retarded."

That was a label Soma never accepted for 19-year-old Tito. And after hearing Tito's story, you'll never look at an autistic child the same way.

"How was your day?" Soma asks.

Before Tito can answer, he obsessively moves around the house, placing the TV remote in its proper place, arranging the salt and pepper shakers just so. Then he sits down in front of his specially designed keyboard to type his response.

"It was like a floating kangaroo that kept itself invisible," Tito answers.

Tito's cryptic reply is part of his medical condition. But his distinctive way of speaking is also a gift that has made him famous in a misunderstood community.

Though Tito is virtually mute, that changes when he picks up a pencil to write, or begins tapping at his keyboard.

He is a poet, and the author of several books and essays in which he eloquently describes what it's like to be autistic.

In his writings, he explains why he doesn't make eye contact, what it is like to be obsessed with a ceiling fan, and how his brain has trouble processing sound, touch and sight all at once.

Experts confirm Tito's observations of autism. One doctor described it as the way the brain fails. None can agree on its exact cause, but most believe there is a genetic predisposition to the condition, with significant environmental triggers involved.

The developmental disorder affects the way the brain works and affects the way the child interacts with society.

Some doctors and parents see a link between childhood vaccines, others suspect pesticides or drugs taken during pregnancy. The theories are endless and most experts agree there is no single cause.

Whatever autism is, its symptoms range from a mild form to rendering individuals dependent on others for life.

Many people with autism are able to take in information very well, but the wiring in the brain simply won't allow the information to be processed in the form of organized thought and language.

Tito has given experts some rare insight into what that feels like. His poetry includes stanzas like this:

"I am he.

And I am me.

I am he behind that mirror

I am me watching the he."

One of his favorite books is Plato's "Republic."

The world may have never known about Tito's gift except for the efforts of his mother, Soma, who is from India.

Doctors there told Soma that Tito was mentally retarded and beyond hope. She gave up her career in chemistry, determined to teach him.

Eventually, an organization in the United States brought Soma and Tito, then 10 years old, to the United States to study him because he defied the stereotype of an autistic child.

Soma's method of teaching Tito is called the Rapid Prompting Method. I watched her work with other children at the HALO -- Helping Autism through Learning and Outreach -- center in Austin, Texas, where she teaches while Tito attends school.

The therapy starts by asking the children to point at words on pieces of paper. Once they've mastered that, they use the stencil.

If their motor skills develop well enough, the children will type on a specially designed keyboard.

Her technique seems to be working for the children who attend therapy at HALO. There is a yearlong waiting list for four-day therapy sessions. It can take years to see progress.

Rapid Prompting has not been tested in long-term scientific studies, and Soma is not without her critics. Some criticize her methods as harsh and unproven.

During her sessions, Soma never says "good job," never rewards a child with a high-five or a treat, which is a common reward in other therapeutic techniques.

Soma is unapologetic.

"I don't see the child as autistic. I don't see the label at all," Soma says, speaking quickly in her musical Indian accent.

"I see the child as a person. And just as I would talk to any person, I would talk to a child, because the world is not going to talk to them in a very slow way."

Dr. Michael Merzenich was one of the first experts to pay attention to Soma's technique. He's a neuroscientist at the University of California, and he believes Soma's rapid prompting works.

He says there is no doubt the children are using their minds to create their own words and express their own ideas. Unlike facilitated learning techniques that have been discredited, Soma does not guide the children's hands.

"Imagine what it would be like," he says, "to be able to understand everything that's said to you -- to think and to be unable to communicate your own thoughts and ideas."

Merzenich does not believe Rapid Prompting works for all autistic children, but has no doubt it can help thousands.

I watch several young children in their therapy sessions on this day in Austin. Some struggle horribly. The session makes the children appear stressed, but they continually make small breakthroughs and answer questions correctly.

Soma conducts about 10 therapy sessions a day.

"You must be exhausted," I say to her.

"I can't be," she answers curtly but with a smile. "I have to go home now and teach Tito."

At their home, I ask Tito if he is happier now that he can communicate. He writes out a long response on a piece of paper on a clipboard.

"I can't say whether I am happy or not, because happiness is a state of my mind. So sometimes I think I'm happy. Other times it is hollowness."

It's probably a true statement for most of us at some point in our lives. Soma smiles at the response and doesn't miss a beat.

"Keep writing," she says to Tito. "Keep going."

Original here

Nerds have more fun. Here's proof

Remember those guys in high school who wore the pocket protectors and ran all the AV gear? Well, we might have been laughing at them back then, but now they seem to be having all the fun. Here's a guy called Roger Smith in Chillicothe Ohio, who likes making giant Tesla coils in his garage. Check out what happens when you run about 20 skadillion volts through it.

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Zoologists Unlock New Secrets About Frog Deaths

Red-eyed Tree Frog. 43 percent of known amphibian species in the world are at risk because of a fungus. (Credit: iStockphoto/Mark Kostich)

New research from zoologists at Southern Illinois University Carbondale opens a bigger window to understanding a deadly fungus that is killing off frogs throughout Central and South America, and that could threaten amphibian populations in North America as well.

The research, led by SIUC zoologist Karen R. Lips, and SIUC zoologist Michael W. Sears, underscores the dire circumstances facing up to 43 percent of known amphibian species in the world and points up the need for more regulations, conservation efforts and quarantines to prevent the fungus’ spread.

An associate professor of zoology in the College of Science at SIUC, Lips is at the forefront of in research in catastrophic decline of frog species brought on by the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus. The fungus, known to researchers as “Bd,” wipes out frog populations essentially by completely blocking their skin. Amphibians such as frogs depend on their skin to provide oxygen and moisture. Bd infections cause electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to cardiac arrest.

Lips has studied the issue since the early 1990s, becoming a recognized expert on the subject. She, along with her graduate and doctoral students, regularly visit the high jungles of Central America, roughing it in the wild while collecting data on the ecological systems before, during and after the fungus arrives.

This latest study, conducted with Sears, an assistant professor of zoology at SIUC, and two other colleagues at the Illinois Natural History Survey and Zoo Atlanta, expands upon that work by seeking better understanding of the spread of the fungus, its triggers and how it might be spread.

Specifically, the researchers examined data from South American amphibian declines to see whether the wave-like spread seen in Central America, typical of an emerging infectious disease, was evident.

One previous theory, for instance, blamed the fungus on global climate change. Lips and Sears, however, found climate change doesn’t appear to trigger outbreaks of the fungus, but that it instead spreads in wave-like patterns often seen in exotic species and emerging infectious diseases. They call their theory the “spreading pathogen hypothesis.”

Using modeling, the researchers found evidence of four different introductions of Bd into South America. They found that the fungus spread through the population at a rate similar to that seen in Central America and in a manner that best explains amphibian population declines in Central and South America.

“What makes the study really relevant is we can now generalize how the fungus is spread,” Lips said. “We know from our research, that if we start looking in the right time and place in an area where the fungus is, we’re probably going to see it affecting frog populations. This helps us understand what’s going on, and it can potentially help us get out in front of it.”

The study could help governments and environmental agencies focus on ways to prevent the fungus’ spread through more regulation of potential infection routes, such as the ornamental plant and aquarium wildlife trade. The fungus can easily hitch a ride to other regions through such trade, Lips said.

“If you go and buy an ornamental plant from one of these regions and plant it in your yard, or you buy a frog at a pet shop, think about it. If the fungus is there and still alive, it’s now introduced into the environment. Then it can get into your pond or streams.”

Lips said simple testing of such products and organisms before importing them could reveal the fungus’ presence. Once discovered, simple anti-fungal drugs will kill the fungus before it can contaminate an area.

“Our research has shown that once the fungus gets somewhere new it spreads like wildfire,” Lips said. “So the key is preventing it from spreading.”

The fungus is present in North America, including Illinois, but little is known so far about its impact here. With funding from the Illinois Department Natural Resources, Lips in the coming months will survey the extent of the fungus and its impact in Illinois.

Among the study’s key points:

  • Climate change, while having some negative impacts on amphibian biodiversity, does not appear to have triggered the disease in Central America and the Andes of South America, as suggested by previous studies.
  • The fungus appears to have spread in a wave-like manner, in a typical pattern of disease spread.
  • The fungus was introduced in South America in the late 1970s or early 1980s. After introduction, the disease spread along the Andes, infecting native amphibians and often causing the extinction of entire populations and species.
  • There is robust evidence supporting the “spreading pathogen hypothesis,” which holds the disease was and continues to be spread in a wave-like pattern seen in Central America. It is likely this same pattern will emerge in other places where Bd has been detected, including North America and Europe.

Lips said the study increases understanding of the disease, which should allow humans to take steps to limit its spread.

“We need to get into areas ahead of the spreading wave — such as eastern Panama and the southern Andes — to conduct intensive surveys and monitoring for both native amphibians and the … fungus,” Lips said. Environmental agencies also should immediately begin conservation programs aimed at conserving rare and endangered amphibian species that might be wiped out by the fungus.

“At this time, the fungus cannot be controlled or managed in wild amphibians nor their habitats,” Sears added.

The island of Madagascar, which is home to a large number of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, so far appears free of the deadly fungus. The researchers said governments should take steps to maintain that status.

In the future, Lips believes that researchers should study treatment options for wild amphibians and possibly their habitats to prevent or minimize the fungus while establishing a global network of disease surveillance. They should increase communication and monitoring of global trade and increase outreach communication with researchers and policy makers to raise awareness on its potential impacts in other geographic locations.

Researchers also should survey museum specimens to better determine the location, timing and possible sources of the fungus and its introduction into the environment in various locations. They also should study fungus samples for genetic clues as to its origins and the different strains involved.

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Asperger's: My life as an Earthbound alien

One CNN manager recently learned -- at 48 -- that she has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. Today she shares an inside view of life with the condition.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Recently, at 48 years of age, I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. For most of my life, I knew that I was "other," not quite like everyone else. I searched for years for answers and found none, until an assignment at work required me to research autism. During that research, I found in the lives of other people with Asperger's threads of similarity that led to the diagnosis. Although having the diagnosis has been cathartic, it does not change the "otherness." It only confirms it.

When I talk to people about this aspect of myself, they always want to know what it means to be an "Aspie," as opposed to a "Neurotypical" (NT). Oh, dear, where to start . ...

The one thing people seem to know about Asperger's, if they know anything at all, is the geek factor. Bill Gates is rumored to be an Aspie. We tend to have specialized interests, and we will talk about them, ad infinitum, whether you are interested or not. Recognizing my tendency to soliloquize, I often choose silence, although perhaps not often enough. Due to our extensive vocabularies and uninflected manner of speaking, we are called "little professors," or arrogant.

I don't quite understand small talk, and early in my adult life, solecisms were frequent. At meetings, I launch into business without the expected social acknowledgments. It's not that I don't care about people, I am just very focused on task. Do you have to rehearse greeting people to reinforce that you should do it? I do.

I am lucky to have a very dear friend who savors my eccentricities. She laughs, lovingly, about one particular evening at a restaurant. Before she could get seated, I asked her what she knew about the golden ratio and began to spew everything I know about it. I re-emphasize how lucky I am to have her as a friend, because this incident occurred long before I was diagnosed.

A misconception is that Aspies do not have a sense of humor. It is true that we can be very literal, so we often miss the humor in everyday banter, but we can and do enjoy even subtle humor. Our literal interpretations, however, can be problematic.

In first grade, whenever someone made a mess in the classroom, the teacher would ask a student to get the janitor. The student would come back with Mr. Jones (not really his name), who carried a broom and large folding dustpan. When I was asked to get the janitor, I looked all over the school and reported back to the teacher that I could not find it. After all, the person was Mr. Jones, so the janitor must be the object, right?

I lack the ability to see emotion in most facial expressions. I compensate for this deficiency by listening to the inflections in people's voices and using logic to determine emotional context. The words people choose, their movements, or even how quickly they exit a meeting can provide clues to emotion.

I also have intensified senses -- touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound -- so I am attuned to lights, noise, textures, and smells. In a "busy" environment, I will eventually go into sensory overload and my mind will go blank. When this happens, I have to "go away" mentally for a brief period to regain focus. When I "return," I have to piece together what occurred while I was "away." The additional mental processing I must do to function every day is fatiguing, and I don't handle "ad hoc" very well. Being asked to respond quickly in the midst of all this other processing is difficult, sometimes impossible.

I am so sensitive to touch that a tickle hurts me. This is the hardest concept for most people to understand. How can a tickle hurt? All I can tell you is that it does, so I avoid being touched except by those who have learned how to touch me.

Hugs are dispensed infrequently, but if I do hug someone, I resemble Frankenstein's monster, arms extended to control contact. When my dad (who I suspect is an Aspie, too) and I hug, we both have "the approach." We sometimes miss and have to re-approach a couple of times until a brief, awkward hug is achieved.

In school, other children noted my differences, and I was bullied (and tickled into fits of despair) for years. Already needing extended periods of time alone, my response was to become even more of a loner. Uh oh. When you are weird, you are a joke. When you are a loner, you frighten people. It's always the quiet ones. ...

I am married (wow!), and my brilliant husband is an absolute sweetheart. I don't know any other man who has the self-confidence to be pushed away (sometimes sharply), both physically and mentally, as often as he has been. He has been gentle and patient (and, yes, frequently emotionally depleted) as we both worked through my need for space, tendency to go so deep into my own world that the real world and everyone in it cease to exist, and sensitivity to touch during the 26 (soon to be 27) years of our marriage.

I live with anxiety, because the world can be overwhelming and people have expectations that I always, sooner or later, fail to meet. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have been told that I am rude, inaccessible or cold, yet I have never purposely tried to harm anyone, nor do I mean to be, well, mean.

I could tell you so much more, but instead let me share one last insight. Don't pity me or try to cure or change me. If you could live in my head for just one day, you might weep at how much beauty I perceive in the world with my exquisite senses. I would not trade one small bit of that beauty, as overwhelming and powerful as it can be, for "normalcy."

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Snakes on the Brain

New research by psychologists suggests we're born ready to look for snakes. As this ScienCentral News video reports, a series of experiments showed that people–even toddlers–tend to recognize and locate a snake faster than other plants and animals.

Interviewee: Judy DeLoache
University of Virginia
Length: 1 min 24 sec
Produced by Chris Bergendorff
Edited by Chris Bergendorff
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

Scary Serpents

Snakes inspire disgust in many people, and downright terror in others. In fact, snake phobia, or ophidiophobia, is the one of the most common phobias on earth. Now psychology researchers studying toddlers say that avoiding snakes may be an evolutionary adaptation that's slithered its way into our genes. The University of Virginia's Judy DeLoache says her own personal snake fear led her to this research. "I have a very intense fear of snakes. In fact, I would pretty much say I have a snake phobia. I always have, ever since I can remember."

DeLoache, an expert on how children see and interpret symbols, began with the theory that spotting a snake is a survival skill that may have been passed on in peoples' genetic code. This skill most likely extends far back into our evolutionary past. As DeLoache explains, "any human that could quickly detect the presence of a snake and thereby avoid being bitten by one and possibly poisoned, would have been more likely to survive, would have been more likely to pass on their genes to their offspring." Because snakes are found all over the globe, this adaptation would have continued to be useful to our ancestors as they settled in different areas of the world.

If humans truly do have an inherited tendency to quickly locate snakes in their environment, they may also readily fear snakes as well. A threatening object, like a snake, would elicit more of a response than a non-threatening object, like a tree or a rock. Eventually, this could make it more likely for some people to develop an irrationally intense fear of snakes.

DeLoache and her colleague Vanessa LoBue first tested for the snake spotting ability in adults. They measured people's speed at locating pictures of snakes among pictures of flowers, and also the reverse. The results supported the evolutionary theory. "Adults are much more quickly to visually find a picture of a snake among other kinds of pictures," says DeLoache, "than they are to, say, find a flower among a whole bunch of different kinds of snakes."

But what about young children who've never seen a snake? The researchers reasoned that if the ability to see snakes more quickly than other objects really is an adaptation common to all humans, then it should show up in young children, even if they've never had experience with snakes. DeLoache and LoBue set up a new series of experiments that were, in many ways, extensions of the previous one.

They asked a group of young children, and their parents, to repeat the procedure from their former study. They found that both age groups were able to spot snakes among flowers faster than flowers among snakes, reinforcing the previous results. However, they also tested both groups with two other sets of pictures: frogs and caterpillars. The researchers wanted to make sure that their participants were truly spotting snakes faster due to an inborn ability, and not for any other reason. They included pictures of frogs, because frogs and snakes share many physical characteristics, including skin texture and coloring. They also included caterpillar pictures, because those insects most closely resemble the elongated body shapes of snakes.

The researchers wrote in the journal Psychological Science that their tests with toddlers suggest spotting snakes really is an inborn ability. As DeLoache says, "Three, four, and five year old children, and their parents who came into the lab with them, all detected the presence of a snake more rapidly than all sorts of other kinds of pictures that we showed them."

DeLoache points out that if that ability is inborn, then it isn't going anywhere. However, she says, treating phobias is still a poorly understood area of psychology. She hopes a better understanding may help ease the fears of those, like her, who have snakes on the brain.

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Mathematicians rewarded for decoding symmetry

Award goes to maths that tames wild shapes and houses the infinite.

Masters of symmetry: John Griggs Thompson and Jacque Tits.Masters of symmetry: John Griggs Thompson and Jacque Tits.University of Florida and Jean-François Dars/CNRS Images

The Abel Prize, generally considered the ‘Nobel’ of mathematics, has been won this year by two mathematicians whose work has helped to classify the building blocks of symmetry.

John Griggs Thompson of the University of Florida, Gainsville, and Jacques Tits of the Collège de France in Paris, France, have been given the prize, worth 6 million Norwegian kroner (US$1.2 million), for their work on group theory, which describes how the symmetry properties of objects fall into distinct classes or groups.

Group theory is one of the most practically useful branches of pure mathematics, being used in scientific fields ranging from fundamental theories of particle physics to the spectroscopic analysis of molecules.

The symmetries of objects can be described using fundamental ‘symmetry operations’: manipulations that leave the object looking unchanged. This is true of squares and cubes, for example, if they are rotated by a quarter of a full turn, or if they are reflected in various mirror planes that cut the shapes in half.

The full set of such symmetry operations for an object constitutes a 'group'. There is only a limited number of such groups, and they therefore supply a way of putting all shapes (or algebraic equations) into a small number of basic symmetry classes — a kind of 'Periodic Table' of symmetry.

Prime symmetries

Thompson showed that certain symmetry operations can be broken down into more basic, indivisible operations, rather like the way molecules can be decomposed into their elemental atoms. These elemental operations are related to prime numbers. For example, a symmetry rotation of a 15-sided polygon is equivalent to the rotations of a 5-sided polygon and an equilateral triangle, both inscribed inside the original polygon.

“Tits' work is about trying reduce wild to tame behaviour.”

Graham Niblo

In 1963 Thompson and Walter Feit (who died in 2004) proved that the breaking down of symmetries into those of prime-number-sided shapes is always possible for objects with an odd number of symmetries (such as a 15-sided polygon) but not possible for even-numbered ones (such as a 16-sided polygon). Their Odd Order Theorem proof filled 255 journal pages and occupied an entire volume of the Pacific Journal of Mathematics — several other journals rejected the paper because it was too long.

This work showed how to tell whether or not a group was reducible to more fundamental groups, and it led to the recognition that so-called finite groups, which have a finite number of symmetry elements, can be classed into families, leading to the periodic table of such groups. These are enumerated in a dense book called the Atlas of Finite Groups .

Housing the infinite

“The Monster can only be fully seen in 196,883 dimensions.”

Tits has studied the symmetry properties of so-called linear groups, in which the symmetry operations can be infinite in number. There are, for example, an infinite number of rotations of a circle that will leave it looking unchanged.

Although a circle seems a simple shape, the infinite symmetries of such shapes are hard to get a hold on. "Tits' work is about trying to tame the infinite space of these objects, to reduce wild to tame behaviour," says Graham Niblo, a group theorist at the University of Southampton in the UK. Tits' work showed how these groups can be described and analysed in geometric terms, making their properties easier to visualize. He coined the term 'buildings' to describe the geometric structures that arise as a result, and showed that they can be further broken down into so-called 'apartments' and 'chambers'.

Together the work of Thompson and Tits has led to a better understanding of a strange class of symmetrical objects called sporadic groups, which don’t fit into the periodic table of symmetries. "They seem to come from nowhere," says Niblo. The most bizarre of these, and the largest, is an object called the Monster, which can only be fully seen in 196,883 dimensions and has 8 x 1053 symmetry elements. Thompson devised a formula for predicting how many symmetry operations a sporadic group may have, and Tits has studied some of them: one (the Tits group) is named after him.

The Abel Prize, established in 2002, is administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo. It is named after the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, who himself made profound contributions to the foundations of group theory during his short life. Born in 1802, he died aged just 26. Plans for an Abel memorial prize were mooted on the first centenary of his birth, but came to nothing. They were revived on the second centenary, and the first Abel prize was awarded in 2003.

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Crusaders 'left genetic legacy'

Sidons crusader castle in south Lebanon (AP)
The modern country of Lebanon has a rich heritage
Scientists have detected the faint genetic traces left by medieval crusaders in the Middle East.

The team says it found a particular DNA signature which recently appeared in Lebanon and is probably linked to the crusades.

The finding comes from the Genographic Project, a major effort to track human migrations through DNA.

Details of the research have been published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

The researchers found that some Christian men in Lebanon carry a DNA signature hailing from Western Europe.

Four crusades came through Lebanon between the 11th and 13th Centuries - the first, second, third and sixth. The bulk of the crusader armies came from England, France, Germany and Italy; many of the men stayed to build castles and settlements, mixing with the local populations.

The scientists also found that Lebanese Muslim men were more likely than Christians to carry a particular genetic signature. But this one is linked to expansions from the Arabian Peninsula which brought Islam to the area in the 7th and 8th Centuries.

But they emphasise that the differences between the two communities are minor, and that Christians and Muslim Arabs in Lebanon overwhelmingly share a common heritage.

Genetic 'surname'

The legacy of the Muslim expansion has been demonstrated in other studies which looked at the genetics of Middle Eastern and North African populations. But signs of recent European migration to the region are more unusual.

The study focused on the Y, or male, chromosome, a package of genetic material carried only by men that is passed down from father to son more or less unchanged, just like a surname.

The goal of the study was to put some science to the history of this country
Pierre Zalloua, Lebanese American University
But over many generations, the chromosome accumulates small changes, or copying errors, in its DNA sequence.

These can be used to classify male chromosomes into different groups (called haplogroups) which, to some extent, reflect a person's geographical ancestry.

The team analysed the Y chromosomes of 926 Lebanese males and found that patterns of male genetic variation in Lebanon fell more along religious lines than along geographical lines.

A genetic signature on the male chromosome called WES1, which is usually only found in west European populations, was found among the Lebanese men included in the study.

Science and history

"It seems to have come in from Europe and is found mostly in the Christian population," said Dr Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project.

"This is odd because typically we don't see this sort of stratification by religion when we are looking at the relative proportions of these lineages - and particularly immigration events."

He told BBC News: "Looking at the same data set, we saw a similar enrichment of lineages coming in from the Arabian Peninsula in the Muslim population which we didn't see [as often] in the Christian population."

Lebanese Muslim men were found to have high frequencies of a Y chromosome grouping known as J1. This is typical of populations originating from the Arabian Peninsula, who were involved in the Muslim expansion.

"The goal of the study was to put some science to the history of this country - which is very rich," said Pierre Zalloua, a co-author on the paper, from the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

He added: "To have these great civilisations - with the Islamic expansion and the migration from Europe - coming to Lebanon, leaving not only their genes but also some of their culture and way of life, it can only make us feel richer."

The Genographic Project was launched by National Geographic in 2005 to help piece together a picture of how the Earth was populated.

The consortium has sold 250,000 DNA test kits and regional centres have taken samples of genetic material from 31,000 indigeous people.

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2 big projects will amp up solar power in Southland

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at podium, announces that Southern California Edison(SCE) will build the nation's largest solar energy installation during a news conference on the roof of a ProLogis building in Fontana, Calif.
Edison plans a massive installation of photovoltaic cells on rooftops, and FPL Energy proposes a 250-megawatt plant.

Solar energy is getting a big boost in Southern California with the unveiling of two projects that will be capable of generating a total of 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve more than 300,000 homes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Southern California Edison plan to announce today the country's largest rooftop solar installation project ever proposed by a utility company. And on Wednesday, FPL Energy, the largest operator of solar power in the U.S., said it planned to build and operate a 250-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

The projects would help California meet its goal of obtaining 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In 2006, about 13% of the retail electricity delivered by Edison and the state's other two big investor-owned utilities came from renewable sources such as sun and wind, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Energy experts were struck by the size of the two projects, which would bolster the state's current total of about 965 megawatts of solar power flowing to the electricity grid.

"Five hundred megawatts -- that's substantial," said spokesman George Douglas of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Projects of that size begin to show that solar energy can produce electricity on a utility scale, on the kind of scale that we're going to need."

The Edison rooftop project will place photovoltaic cells on 65 million square feet of commercial building roofs in Southern California. The cells will generate as much as 250 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 162,500 average homes, based on the utility's estimate that one megawatt would serve about 650 average homes.

"These are the kinds of big ideas we need to meet California's long-term energy and climate change goals," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "If commercial buildings statewide partnered with utilities to put this solar technology on their rooftops, it would set off a huge wave of renewable-energy growth."

The project, subject to approval by state utility regulators, will cost an estimated $875 million and take five years to complete, Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said. The utility, a subsidiary of Edison International, plans to begin installation work immediately on commercial roofs in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and spread to other locations in Southern California at a rate of one megawatt a week.

The first of the solar rooftops, which will use advanced photovoltaic generating technology, is expected to be in service by August.

"This is a breakthrough. This is hugely accelerating to a scale that is the largest in the country -- a kind of virtual solar generation facility," John E. Bryson, chairman and chief executive of Edison International, said in an interview. "It's a big deal for the state of California; it's a big deal for the renewable-energy sector."

Rosemead-based Southern California Edison provides power to 13 million people in a 50,000-square-mile area of Central and Southern California.

FPL Energy's proposed 250-megawatt plant, dubbed the Beacon Solar Energy Project, will be situated on about 2,000 acres in eastern Kern County.

More than half a million parabolic mirrors will be assembled in rows to receive and concentrate the sun's rays to produce steam for a turbine generator -- a process known as solar thermal power. The generator will produce electricity for delivery to a nearby electric grid. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2009 and will take about two years to complete, the Juno Beach, Fla.-based company said.

"At a time of rising and volatile fossil-fuel costs and increasing concerns about greenhouse gases, solar electricity can have a meaningful impact," FPL Energy President Mitch Davidson said in a statement. "We believe that solar power has similar long-term potential as wind energy, and we are well positioned to play a leading role in the growth of this renewable technology."

Longer term, the company aims to add at least 600 megawatts of new solar by 2015. FPL Energy currently has facilities with a capacity to produce 310 megawatts of solar power.

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First Algae Biodiesel Plant Goes Online: April 1, 2008

algae biodiesel, algae, biodiesel, algaculture, biofuelPetroSun has announced it will begin operation of its commercial algae-to-biofuels facility on April 1st, 2008.

The facility, located in Rio Hondo Texas, will produce an estimated 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million lbs. of biomass per year off a series of saltwater ponds spanning 1,100 acres. Twenty of those acres will be reserved for the experimental production of a renewable JP8 jet-fuel.

Gordon LeBlanc, Jr., CEO of PetroSun had this to say:

“Our business model has been focused on proving the commercial feasibility of the firms’ algae-to-biofuels technology during the past eighteen months. Whether we have arrived at this point in time by a superior technological approach, sheer luck or a redneck can-do attitude, the fact remains that microalgae can outperform the current feedstocks utilized for conversion to biodiesel and ethanol, yet do not impact the consumable food markets or fresh water resources.”

Microalgae have garnered considerable attention, since acre-by-acre microalgae can produce 30-100 times the oil yield of soybeans on marginal land and in brackish water. The biomass left-over from oil-pressing can either be fed to cattle as a protein supplement, or fermented into ethanol.

The big problem has been figuring out how to collect and press the algae, and in the case of open ponds, to prevent contamination by invasive species. PetroSun seems to have figured it out, and this may be the first algae biofuel plant to get off the ground.

PetroSun won’t be making fuel immediately, but plans on either building or acquiring ethanol and biodiesel production plants. They’ve conveniently located themselves in an area accessible by barge, which should make fuel distribution a snap.

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Kremlin Orders 3,200 Mice. No One Knows Why

3,200 white mice have been ordered by the Kremlin guard: the elite troops who protect President Putin.
Red Square Moscow, Image by Bart Slingerland

The bulk buy has been shrouded in secrecy. Apparently all that is known is that the requirements were that the mice had to be female and weigh no more than 18 grams each.

An official from the service said “Everyone is wondering what they are for. But if they were ordered then that means they are needed.” The same official also refused to speculate what the mice were for, saying there were “more important things to think about.”

All of this is pretty strange. Of course, there are some plausible explanations: could an elite army of loyal rodents be the natural choice against the numerous threats issued by elephants against the Kremlin? Will the mice play a role in testing toxic and dangerous chemicals? Or are they there simply to feed the falcons, which are kept in the Kremlin to scare off crows?

Nonetheless, according to Reuters, the Kremlin has found a supplier and is going to be paying 475,776 roubles ($20,000) for the mice. Can anyone beat that?

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Solar Thermal Electricity: Can it Replace Coal, Gas, and Oil?

One of the most common arguments against large-scale use of renewable energy is that it cannot produce a steady, reliable stream of energy, day and night. Ausra Inc. does not agree. They believe that solar thermal technology can supply over 90% of grid power, while reducing carbon emissions.

“The U.S. could nearly eliminate our dependence on coal, oil and gas for electricity and transportation, drastically slashing global warming pollution without increasing costs for energy,” said David Mills, chief scientific officer and founder of Ausra.

You may be wondering, how will we have electricity at night or during cloudy weather?
Will we use large banks of batteries or burn candles?

The ability to utilize solar thermal technology after the sun sets is made possible by a storage system that is up to 93% efficient, according to Ausra’s executive vice president John O’Donnell.

High efficiency is achieved because solar thermal plants do not need to convert energy to another form in order to store it and do not rely on battery technology. Flat moving recflectors or parabolic mirrors focus solar energy to generate heat. This heat generates steam that turns turbines, thus generating an electric current.

If you want to generate electricity-at, say, 3 am-heat from the sun can be stored for later use. This gives solar thermal technology the ability to not just produce peak power, but also generate base load electricity.

Peak Power: The First Wave of Solar Thermal Plants
The maximum amount of electricity demand on the power grid occurs during weekday afternoons and evenings in the summer months in most regions of the United States. This is largely caused by air conditioning loads, which gobble up electricity.

Because the electric grid needs to be able to handle these peak loads, capacity is built to specifically handle these loads. Natural gas and oil typically comes to the rescue to produce this electricity. Although these plants are expensive to operate, they are cheaper to construct than most of the alternatives. They are fast to start, producing power in 30 minutes or less. Additional power plants are constructed just to generate electricity for the times when it is needed most.

This causes peak electricity to be more expensive. A kilowatt hour of electricity at 3 pm and 3 am does not come with the same price tag to the utility company.

“Adding solar plants that reliably generate until 10 pm displaces the highest cost alternative power,” said John O’Donnell. “That is the first wave of solar thermal plants. The daily and seasonal variation in grid load in the United States matches solar availability.”

Base Load: Replacing Coal Power
Base load is the minimum amount of electricity demand placed on the power grid over a 24 hour period. Coal and nuclear plants commonly supply this energy. These plants can take hours or even days to heat up to operating temperatures and are run more continuously than peak power plants.

Due largely to the lower cost of fuel, these plants can produce electricity at a lower cost. If a carbon tax is implemented in the future, this will increase the cost of electricity generated from coal.

Generating electricity around the clock with solar thermal technology relies on storage systems that run turbines long after the sun sets. “Ausra has a very active energy storage R & D group and we will be prototyping a couple of systems this year here in the US,” said John O’Donnell.

Solar Energy Storage
This is not a new technology, having been used for plastic manufacturing and petroleum production for a long time. Solar thermal plants have a cost advantage compared to photovoltaic technology because energy can be stored as heat without being converted to another form or relying on batteries.

“My favorite example in comparing energy storage options is on your desktop,” said John O’Donnell. “If you have a laptop computer and a thermos of coffee on your desk, the battery in your laptop and the thermos store about the same amount of energy. One of them costs about $150 and the other one costs maybe $3 to $5. On the wholesale level, storing electric power is at least 100 times more expensive than storing heat.”

The future certainly looks bright for solar thermal technology as concern over climate change increases. Global demand for electricity is growing rapidly, requiring clean solutions.

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Buy A Tree and Watch it Grow Thanks to Google Earth

You can't say there's anything wrong with paying someone to plant a tree in some spoiled corner of the Earth. But it's not exactly the most rewarding thing. That tree, the buyer assumes, is out there...but it's quickly forgotten and impossible to actually imagine. But the World Wildlife Fund is hoping to chance that, with a little help from Google Earth.

Your $5.50 donation will buy a tree, lifelong care and feeding, scientific study of the forest that it becomes a part of, and the exact coordinates of where that tree is on our big beautiful Earth. Linking that data with Google Earth shows the precise location (on the island of Borneo) of the tree, as well as all of its hundreds of neighbors.

Unfortunately, the resolution of that corner of the the Earth is going to have to be increased significantly before you can actually see your tree, but even now the context is nice.

You can buy trees that will be planted in Indonesia today at Think link provided takes you past the annoyingly long intro and straight into the site. PayPal integration makes the whole thing a breeze. I planted 2 of them myself (USD$11) and received the following message in my inbox:

Your baby tree will be planted in the next few days. Once that is done, we will mail you the exact location and you will be able to see your tree on Google Earth.

Hopefully they mean e-mail...and not paper mail...because that would be annoying.

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